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A haftorah of payment and purity

Liel Leibovitz
February 12, 2010
Demonstrators gather at an American Family Association (AFA)-sponsored T.E.A. (Taxed Enough Already) Party to protest taxes and economic stimulus spending on the last day to file state and federal income tax returns, April 15, 2009 in Santa Monica, California.(David McNew/Getty Images)
Demonstrators gather at an American Family Association (AFA)-sponsored T.E.A. (Taxed Enough Already) Party to protest taxes and economic stimulus spending on the last day to file state and federal income tax returns, April 15, 2009 in Santa Monica, California.(David McNew/Getty Images)

If you’re interested in America’s political future, last week was a great time to read the writing on the wall.

Or, more accurately, the writing on the hand: addressing the Tea Party movement’s national conference, Sarah Palin—paragon of stately elegance, former vice-presidential candidate, present television commentator, future unknown—jotted down the key points of her speech on her palm. The media, of course, reveled in Palin’s faux pas, but somewhere amidst the swirling scorn, the actual message was lost.

Here is what the Deer Hunter from Wasilla had on her mind: moving from thumb to pinkie, Palin had scribbled “energy,” “tax,” and “lift American spirits.” Of the three items, it was, naturally, the second that most delighted Palin’s listeners. The Tea Party, after all, takes its name from a famed tax revolt, and the movement draws much of its energy from its members’ deep-seated dismay with the federal government’s power to levy taxes.

Where does Palin stand on the issue? Like most of her political stances, her opinions on this subject are a collage of inconsistencies, misrepresentations, and lies. She claimed, for example, that Ronald Reagan ended the recession in the 1980s by cutting taxes (a dubious claim at best, and one that ignores the small matter of her idol having raised the national debt an incredible $2 trillion in eight years), or that undoing Bush’s tax cuts would hit working class families (in fact, only families making $83,000 and more would be affected). But like everything else with Palin, it’s not so much what she says as how she says it.

In her book, Going Rogue, there are several references to taxation, none more telling than the one in which Palin introduces her readers to that other uneducated, inexperienced darling of rabid Republicans.

“Our campaign,” Palin writes, “quickly realized that Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber by trade, typified the everyday American laborer who had worked hard to make his own way, was trying to improve his economic lot, and ought not to be punished by oppressive tax policies. Joe the Plumber reminded me personally of those Country Kitchen guys I’d sat with on Friday mornings in Wasilla when I was mayor. I liked him.”

If Palin’s putative presidential bid is successful, we can only assume that her policies would be designed to please Joe the Plumber and his fellow travelers in the Tea Party movement. Anyone wondering what such policies might yield need only look at California, where a successful 1978 taxpayers’ revolt known as Proposition 13 effectively curtailed the state government’s ability to govern the state. This, as Kurt Andersen writes in an insightful article in this week’s New York magazine, makes California “a big canary in this mine. Too much democracy and too little elite wisdom has crippled the state.”

The people who cheer on Palin, of course, are unlikely to heed such warnings when they appear in the media organs of the liberal, northeastern snobs. Perhaps, however, they might listen to the Bible.

If they took a few minutes to read this week’s haftorah, the Tea Partiers might find some jarring stuff. It’s all about taxation. The Temple, we’re told, had fallen into disrepair during the regime of an evil, incompetent, and power-hungry queen. The new administration, ashamed of the neglect gnawing at the nation’s most sacred place, announces plans to renovate, but the priests have become too corrupt: they’d rather filibuster the king than get down to fixing what’s broken. The work is then entrusted to the workmen themselves, who approach it with honesty and diligence and joy.

All that, of course, is in the very distant past. Had the same workers been around today, we can imagine, they would most likely denounce King Jehoash as a socialist and rush off to appear on Glenn Beck’s show.

If we truly want to lift American spirits, then, we need to reread II Kings, chapters 12 and 13, and remind ourselves that it’s not about taxation or representation but about responsibility, the kind of strong personal commitment that drives people not to for-profit festivals of malice and merchandise but to work for the common good.

The righteous men living in the time of Jehoash understood that restoring the Temple was a sacred task that addressed the spiritual and communal wellbeing of the entire nation. Likewise, the righteous men and women living in the time of Palin understand that affordable healthcare, social security, and similar programs designed to safeguard our health, our welfare, and our dignity are sacred tasks as well. If history is any measure, those who strive to repair the situation will triumph over those who listen instead to the din of demagogues. If they don’t, we would at least be able to say that we’ve seen the writing on the hand.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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